Is Your Training Intense Enough?

James Knott races at Alum Creek State Park

Photo by Jackson Sarver

I made a lot of changes to my riding this season after doing research on training for mountain bike races.  One of the biggest differences was learning how to add more intensity to my cycling.

I live within riding distance of my local trail at Alum Creek State Park.  It’s about 4.5 miles from house to dirt.  The old me would hop on my Stumpjumper and immediately start pedaling as hard as I could for the 2 hours it would take me to ride to the trail, do two laps and ride home.  I was able to get into fairly good shape this way, but there were definite limitations to how fast I could get.

The big problem was that I was developing good aerobic endurance, but I wasn’t really training any of the other energy systems that are important for mountain bike racing – like the neuromuscular system for sprinting and short attacks.

There are three ways to increase your workload when you are training – duration (miles or minutes per ride), frequency (rides per week) and intensity (how hard you ride).


If you are thinking about upping your training a notch, you may have thought about logging more miles in each ride.  In the past, my main motivating factor in some of my previous seasons was the mileage goal I set for myself.  I would squeeze in extra miles on each ride just to make my mileage goal.  Unfortunately, some of these miles were complete garbage.  I was worn out and riding slow and nothing about these extra miles was helping me achieve my racing goals.

Adding more miles will help you if you aren’t actually riding enough.  It will increase your endurance, but there is a limit to how much endurance you actually need for a two hour cross country race.  If you do lots of really long endurance rides you will become good at endurance – but nothing else.  This is good if you like to do century rides, 24-hour races or ironman triathlons, but not very helpful for a 20 mile cross country mountain bike race where you need to sprint from the start to the singletrack, pedal hard to tackle short climbs and attack on short stretches of gravel.


You may have also thought about riding more often.  We sport class weekend warriors are often short on time. We squeeze in rides when we can and sometimes there is just too much going on to train.  My wife knows that Tuesday, Thursday Saturday and Sunday are my ride days and tries not to schedule things on those days.  So I max out at 4 days a week at two hours per workout if all goes well.

If you are only riding once or twice a week then you are a good candidate for increasing the frequency of your rides to improve.  Once you reach 4 or 5 days a week then increasing frequency will only provide a small gain.  Your body needs rest to repair between hard workouts – this means days off or recovery rides.  The maximum frequency you should aim for is 6 days a week and if you reach that high then 2 or 3 of your rides should be recovery rides anyways.


James Knott races at Alum Creek State Park

Photo by Jackson Sarver

So let’s say you’ve maxed out the duration and frequency of your riding.  You have no more time left in your schedule.  What options remain?  The only thing left is to increase the intensity of those rides.  By coincidence, intensity is what you need to be a faster mountain bike racer.

If you try to go as fast as you can for your entire workout you will max out at a not-so-intense average speed or power level.  This doesn’t mean the workout is not hard, but you will only (well mostly) be stressing your aerobic endurance on an ride lasting a 90 minutes or more.

Interval workouts are the key to reaching higher intensities.  The idea is to push yourself to a higher power level and hold that for a certain amount of time, then allow your muscles to rest before pushing yourself again.  By doing this, you can accumulate more time at a higher power level than if you tried to hold that power level for one long stretch.

There is a limited amount of time that you can spend at any given intensity.  For example, the maximum amount of time you can ride at VO2max (your aerobic capacity) might be 5 or 6 minutes for one stretch.  After this amount of time you would be completely spent.  If you do 6 x 3 minute intervals (which is so totally doable!), you can spend 18 minutes in that zone.

The specifics of the intervals – how long, how many and how hard – is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll be writing about that in future blog posts so make sure you subscribe to Quickdirt for more informative articles.

To really dial in your intervals I highly recommend the use of a power meter.  I use the Powertap G3 MTB from Cycleops.  Unfortunately, power meters are expensive and out of the price ranges of many riders.  However, if you are thinking about getting a new bike to make you faster, then I think a power meter is usually a better investment.

You can also use heart rate training for some parts of your training, but that definitely has some big limitations in my book.

Intervals – The Laid Back Way

James Knott after the mountain bike race at Alum Creek State Park

Photo by Jackson Sarver

I’m sure a lot of you are thinking that intervals are a little too structured for your laid back styles or that they might beat the fun out of riding.  But, there are plenty of ways to incorporate a little bit of extra intensity into your workout without turning it into a chore.

For example, if you ride to your trail, you can warm up for the first 10 minutes and then do a couple all-out sprints (10-20 seconds) every minute or two to get ready for a strong race start.

Another strategy, is to break up your trail ride.  I have a six mile loop at my local trail with a creek at the half way point.  I like to ride hard to the creek (harder than I could maintain for the full loop) and then stop for 3 or 4 minutes to drink water, catch my breath and rest my muscles.  I then ride hard on the second half of the lap back to the parking lot where I can stop for 3 or 4 minutes to talk to my friends.  Two or three laps like this will add up to a lot more intense riding than if you did two or three laps with no break.

Also, if your local trail has a long tough climb, ride up and down it a couple of times.  Ride up intensely and recover on the way down.

Time To Kick It Up a Notch

If you haven’t been using intervals to become a faster racer, then now is the time to start.  They are effective.  If you want to wallow in mediocrity then just keep doing what you are doing.

Really, the most important thing is to have fun.  I find that going fast makes riding more fun for me – and that makes intervals very justifiable.

I actually find that doing intervals is mentally easier than doing long sustained rides.  I really like the structure that it gives me. And, I love using my power meter to dial in very specific ranges to improve my functional threshold power, VO2max and anaerobic abilities – three things that I’ll be talking about in future articles on!

What motivates you to ride?  Let me know in the comment section.

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